We have spent the last week imagining what it would have been like to have been flies on the wall of Michael Wolff’s first days inside the White House. If we were able to use some form of time-travel-metamorphosis machine to transport and transform ourselves, through time and space, we wish we were there at the very moment following the journalist’s first conversation with Trump (most likely, as we would discover later, during an extended period of the president’s ‘executive time’). We would have positioned ourselves in the hallway, at the moment after Wolff closed the door of the Oval office behind him. Perhaps we would have seen him shake his head, and then hear him mutter the words “Fire and Fury” quietly to himself. But what we wouldn’t have seen was an image, and with it, the contours of a reason that led us to what would become Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
Even without this flight of fancy, or this lost or unrecoverable image, could Wolff, back then, have anticipated the extraordinary reception of his book that we have been watching unfurl over the past week, long before the words ‘very stable genius’ were tweeted in rage? Did he know the direction of his work, the contours of this argument, while he was scribbling into his notebook or whispering into his voice recorder in those first days?
Of course, today our own book to come (No Philosopher King: An Ancient Guide to Art and Life under Trump) cannot make any pre-emptive claims to vie with Fire and Fury for far-reaching impact and journalistic acumen. Yet we are in a situation where we can report – here and now – on an image of the early days of the Trump presidency, as recorded in our project ‘Minus Plato Today’, without any need of a time-travel-metamorphosis machine.
This image can be found by looking back on the first two weeks and the first ten posts of the project (Nov. 25, Nov. 26, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, Nov. 29, Nov. 30, Dec. 1, Dec. 2, Dec. 3 and Dec. 4). As many of you know, we embarked on our project in response to then president Obama’s call for us to mourn until Thanksgiving and then get back to work. Back then we knew that we had to resolve to create some kind of space, a platform of sorts, for a daily practice of work about Classics and Contemporary Art as a means of resistance to the lawlessness to come (in other words, to quote from our first post of Nov. 25: Between checking Facebook, posting on Instagram, organizing action and groping towards a way to move forward, we realized that we had something very concrete and specific that we can do).
But in addition to Obama’s call, we were also reacting to a specific work of art, an image of which appeared to us as the impetus to write every day. The image was a screensaver, with an icon taken from Petra Cortright’s e-book HELL_TREE (here it is cleared of the noise of our usual cluttered desktop).
We wanted ‘Minus Plato Today’ to act as a kind of alternative HELL_TREE, one which transposed Cortright’s own reforming of the first shoots of her Twitter feed into the branches of her delirious epic out of the soil of her work and life (made out with future boyfriend; the plants are healthy; the devil manifested itself into the folder of 1,828 zipped files on my external hard drive), onto a blog project that sowed the seeds of disturbance in the entrenched discipline of Classics by displacing its smug professorial authority with the freshness and precarity of contemporary creativity. But as soon as we started our work, events would conspire to change our resolved beginnings and do so several times in those early days, making this clear image recede into the background. For example, the day we planned to discuss the every day in HELL_TREE, planned for our second post (Nov. 26), had to be pushed back to the next day (Nov. 27) by the news of the death of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro (Waking up to the news of Fidel Castro’s death means that the promised post on Petra Cortright’s Hell_Tree will have to wait until tomorrow. Today we want to write about some other news from Cuba – Nov. 27) and was supplanted by a discussion of botany and literature, the two Plinys and the work of Cuban artist José Manuel Fors. (Here is a detail of his most recent work Palimpsest currently on view at the Fine Arts Museums in Havana).
After getting back to Cortright on Nov. 27, we suffered another disruption on Nov. 28 when we had to record the context of our writing the post on Christ Marker’s Homer as news of an “active shooter” on the Ohio State University campus – where we were writing. As news unfolded about the knife attack by Somali-born OSU student Abdul Razak Ali Artan, we were posting about Sophie Von Hellermann’s painting of a man watching cricket in bed (Nov. 29). At the same time, Trump was tweeting that this student should never have been in the country, in an unsubtle promotion of his Muslim Travel Ban.
Attempts to return to the everyday and the image of HELL_TREE included a brief analysis of Sara VanDerBeek in Ostia (Dec. 1) and an unforgettable moment in one of Frederic Tuten’s fictions (Dec. 2). Yet the damage had been done. Our attempt to trace the nuance of an everyday project had exploded into the fateful post of Dec. 3: the Minus Plato Manifesto. Here is the moment at which Trump’s Twitter took over our image of Cortright’s everyday :
Minus Plato goes around telling tales
While Nero goes around taking names
While Nero goes around Tweeting orders
While Nero feeds hate
Minus Plato confronts Nero with a mirror
Minus Plato is your Seneca
Minus Plato is your Pamphile of Epidaurus
Minus Plato is them in all of us
Minus Plato will be here again tomorrow
Sure on Sunday, Dec. 4 we tried to regroup, with a single, simple image (of postcards by Romare Bearden’s Odyssey and Luigi Ghirri’s landscapes), but it was already too late. Our everyday had swiftly transitioned into the drawing of battle lines, a set of resolutions and projected plans.
Writing this we find ourselves at a strangely familiar moment. We are currently writing a book that reforms the daily posts of the ‘Minus Plato Today’ into eleven thematic chapters. (Here is a shorthand for identifying them):
As we write, the posts on Petra Cortright and Chris Marker are meeting in the MEDIA chapter, while in the ACADEMY chapter you will find Frederic Tuten’s Platonic bear cave alongside the anti-Platonic scrawls of the BFA student collective blackboard project for Blueprints for a Past Future (how prescient the title of that exhibition about Black Mountain College seems now!)?
These connections, beyond the daily practice of writing, are all part of the challenge of returning, reforming and refreshing that we are working on here. Nonetheless, to return to Fire and Fury and the lawlessness of the present moment, while we cannot (yet) know the inner workings of Wolff’s research and writing process, we are here committed to working towards an open project, one that has its own inner time as part of its mechanism for renewal. Here we are reminded of how Paul Chan ends his essay ‘A Lawless Proposition’ and have adapted it to fit where we find ourselves, here and now:
We began to write this with what we thought was an image of lawlessness in our mind. It is not one of the countless images of protests and revolts that have appeared, although it could very well have been. It isn’t Che, nor the Outlaw Josey Wales. It isn’t late, late Matisse, or the “Écrivains de toujours” books by Chris Marker, although either would have fit. We thought it was a moment that occurred recently, where we looked out onto a lush landscape in Las Terrazas, Cuba, with houses, trees and some hills were in view, with the sun shining dully behind the drama of slow-moving clouds, but thinking now, it wasn’t that either. The image is gone, and with it, the contours of a reason that led us here. But here is not so different than back there, where we began, except for the appearance of these words, the time spent writing them, and what remains to be said and done, now that these words have come to an end.